News

Better voting methods require upgraded voting machines

Compatible

technology is prerequisite to reform progress

The need for better voting

methods has been thoroughly stated in the educational work of FairVote

Minnesota._퉌 What is becoming

more fully understood is the importance of getting voting machine technology

in place that can process and count ballots cast using alternatives to

First-Past-The-Post plurality elections._퉌 Fortunately,

this is a time of opportunity for election reformers to work with their

state and local governments to obtain this technology.

Before voters or their representatives

can be persuaded to adopt an advanced voting system, they need to be

confident that the system can be implemented._퉌 In fact, city charter amendment efforts around the country

have sometimes won or lost on this point._퉌 In

order to use an advanced voting method, a community must have compatible

voting technology in place.

Since the 2000 presidential

election, considerable attention has been given to improving election

administration in the United States, including upgrading voting machine

technology. _퉌A federal judge

in Los Angeles ruled in February that nine California counties must replace

their punch-card voting equipment before the next presidential election. _퉌This

decision came in a lawsuit brought under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution,

alleging unequal protection for voters, with implications for voting

jurisdictions across the country. _퉌Minnesota,

though no longer using punch cards, still has a mish mash of precinct-based

and centralized optical scanners as well as manually counted paper ballots. _퉌Voters with precinct-based scanners have protection of error-correcting

capacity that voters with other systems don't have.

Legislation in Congress would

provide funding to states to purchase precinct-based electronic voting

machines. _퉌A Minnesota law

from the 2001 special session created an account to receive any federal

funds which may become available and, in turn, provide matching grants

to local governments to purchase machines._퉌 (The

state also appropriated $1.9 million to the account._퉌 However,

due to the state's budget crisis, the status of these funds is in doubt.)

Heightened interest in upgrading

voting technology suggests increased demand._퉌 However,

the prospect of receiving federal funds has caused local governments

to delay purchasing decisions._퉌 Anecdotal

information from voting equipment vendors says that sales are down because

purchasing decisions are being put off.

This delay gives reform advocates

an opportunity to make sure any machines purchased are compatible with

Instant Runoff Voting and other advanced alternative systems._퉌 One of the big obstacles to public adoption of advanced voting

methods (including Instant Runoff Voting and various forms of proportional

representation) is that the voting machine technology to support those

elections has not been distributed to Minnesota communities._퉌 Even

communities that have recently purchased the latest precinct-based optical

scanners may not have the essential components installed unless the community

asked for those features.

What makes

a voting machine compatible?

In order to be used with

Instant Runoff Voting, a voting machine must be able to record all the

voting information on each ballot._퉌 In

more technical terms, the machine must capture the ballot image, not

merely tally the total votes cast for each candidate._퉌 Many

optical scanners in Minnesota could be retrofitted with the ballot image

capturing firmware at some cost if they do not already have it._퉌 But

it is crucial that newly purchased equipment have the firmware installed,

a feature that may be available at little or even no extra cost if ordered

at the time of purchase.

Besides its usefulness for

tabulating the votes in an alternative election system, ballot image

capturing capability in optical scanners has another function in the

post-Florida era:_퉌 It creates

an audit trail to accompany the paper ballots in the event of a recount._퉌 Paper

ballots can be altered either intentionally or simply by handling after

the ballot is cast._퉌 Capturing

the ballot image would add to the security of the election by recording

what the state of the ballot was when it was cast._퉌 This

may be persuasive in making the case for obtaining ballot image capturing

capability regardless of which voting method is used.

What can

be done to get compatible voting machines?

For a variety of reasons,

federal support is unlikely to come anytime soon._퉌 That

means the best opportunities for action are found at the state and local

level.

The Minnesota Secretary of

State is charged with certifying electronic voting machines for their

compliance with Minnesota law before they are offered for sale to local

governments._퉌 FairVote Minnesota

supports a change in state law requiring that all new electronic voting

machines be ready to support all four ballot types used in the United

States, including ranked ballots and cumulative vote ballots as well

as the common "vote-for-one" and "vote-for-up-to-X" ballot types.

A growing list of civil rights,

voting rights, and election policy organizations supports expanding the

flexibility of voting equipment in this way._퉌 Along

with the more common requirements of catching over-vote errors to allow

voters to correct their ballots and assuring accessibility for people

with disabilities, a variety of recognized organizations now calls for

adding the capacity to handle all ballot types.

Active citizens may have

the most influence on the actions of their local governments, the units

that decide which voting machines to buy and what features those machines

will include._퉌 Local governments

can adopt a policy that all new electronic voting equipment have ballot

image capturing capability to provide an electronic audit trail and to

handle all ballot types used in the United States, including ranked ballots

and cumulative ballots._퉌 These

requirements can be stated in local government Requests For Proposals

from election equipment vendors.

Putting

compatible voting equipment in place will remove one of the main obstacles

to adopting Instant Runoff Voting and other advanced alternative voting

systems.

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